|"Please, now," the bishop sounded sour, as a man who does a favor he knows will have no good result, "bow down your heads as we ask the blessing of Usires Aedon on this table and its deliberation." So saying, he lifted a beautiful Tree of wrought gold and blue stones and held it before him.
"He who was of our world, but is not wholly of our flesh, hear us now.
"He who was a man, but whose Father was no man, but rather the breathing God, give us comfort.
"Watch over this table, and those who take seat here, and put Your hand on the shoulder of him who is lost and searching."
The old man took a breath and glared around the table. Simon, straining to watch with his chin sunk on his breast, thought he looked as though he would like to take his jeweled Tree and brain the lot of them.
"Also," the bishop finished in a rush, "forgive those assembled for any damnable, prideful foolishness that might be spoken here. We are Your children."
The old man teetered and dropped into his chair; there was a murmur of low conversation around the table.
"Would you guess, Simon, that the bishop is not happy to be here?" Binabik whispered.
Josua rose. "Thank you, Bishop Anodis for your... heartfelt prayers. And thanks to all who come to this hall." He looked about the high, firelit chamber, left hand on the table, the other hidden in the folds of his cloak. "These are grave times," he intoned, moving his glance from one face to the other. Simon felt the warmth of the room well up in his, and wondered if the prince would say anything about his rescue. He blinked, opening his eyes in time to see Josua's gaze slide quickly over him and return to the center of the room, "Grave and troubling times. The High King in the Hayholt—and yes, he is my brother, of course, but for our purposes here he is the king—seems to have turned his back on our hardships. Taxes have been raised to the point of cruel punishment, even as the land has suffered beneath fierce drought in Erkynland and Hernystir and terrible storms in the north. At the same time that the Hayholt reaches out to take more than it ever did under King John's reign, Elias has pulled back the troops that once kept the roads open and safe, and which helped to garrison the emptier lands of the Frostmarch and the Wealdhelm."
"Too true!" shouted Baron Ordmaer, and clanged a flagon on the table. "God bless you but that's true. Prince Josua!" He turned and waggled his fist for the benefit of the others. There was a chorus of agreement, but there were also others. Bishop Anodis among them, who shook their heads to hear such rash words so early on.
"And thus," Josua said loudly, quieting the assembly, "thus we are faced with a problem. What are we to do? That is why I have called you here and, I presume, why you have come. To decide what we may do. To keep those chains," he lifted his left arm and showed the manacle still clasped there, "off of our necks, that the king would put on us."
There was a handful of appreciative cries. The buzz of whispered speech rose as well. Josua was waving his enshackled arm for silence when there came a flash of red in the doorway. A woman swept into the room, long silk dress like a torch flame. It was she whom Simon had seen in Josua's chambers, dark-eyed, imperious. Within moments she had reached the prince's chair, the eyes of the men following her with undisguised interest. Josua seemed uncomfortable: as she bent down to whisper something in his ear, he kept his gaze fixed on his wine cup.
"Who is that woman?" Simon hissed, and was not the only one asking, to judge by the rush of whispers.
"Her name is Vorzheva. Daughter of a clan lord of the Thrithings, she is, as well as being the prince's... what? Woman, I suppose. They say she is of great beauty."
"She is." Simon continued to stare for a moment, then turned back to the troll. " 'They say'! What do you mean, 'they say'? She's right there, isn't she?"
"Ah, but I am having trouble judging." He smiled. "It is that I do not like the look of tall women."
The Lady Vorzheva had apparently finished giving her message. She listened to Josua's reply, then a moment later glided swiftly from the hall, leaving only a final scarlet shimmer in the dark of the doorway.
The prince looked up, and behind his placid face Simon thought he detected something that looked like... embarrassment?
"Now," Josua began, "we were...? Yes, Baron Devasalles?"
The dandy from Nabban stood up. "You were saying, your Highness, that we should be considering Elias only as king. But that is obviously not true."
"What do you mean?" asked the lord of Naglimund, above a disapproving rumble from his liegemen.
"Your pardon, prince, but what I mean is this: if he were only king we would not be here, or at least Duke Leobardis would not have sent me. You are the only other son of Prester John. Why else would we travel so far? Otherwise, those who had complaints with the Hayholt would travel to the Sancellan Mahistrevis, or to the Taig in Hernysadharc. But you are his brother, yes? The king's brother?"
A chilly smile flickered across Josua's mouth. "Yes, Baron, I am. And I understand your meaning."
"Thank you. Highness." Devasalles made a small bow. "Now the question remains. What do you want. Prince Josua? Revenge? The throne? Or merely an accommodation with a grasping king, one that will leave you unmolested here at the Naglimund?"
Now there was a full-blown growl from the Erkynlanders present, and a few rose, brows beetling and mustaches quivering. But before any of them could seize the moment, young Gwythinn of Hernystir leaped to his feet, leaning across the table toward Baron Davasalles like a horse straining at the bit.
"The gentleman from Nabban wants a word, eh? Well, then, here's mine. Fight! Elias has insulted my father's blood and throne, and has sent the King's Hand to our Taig with threats and harsh words, like a man punishing children. We do not need to weigh the this and that of it—we are ready to fight!"
Several people cheered the Hernystirman's bold words, but Simon, looking fuzzily about the room as he finished the last drops of another cup of wine, saw even more looking worried, talking quietly with their tablemates. Beside him Binabik was frowning, mirroring the expression that shadowed the face of the prince.
"Hear me!" Josua cried. "Nabban, in the person of Leobardis' emissary, has asked hard but fair questions, and I will answer them." He turned his cold stare to Devasalles. "I have no wish to be king, Baron. My brother knew that, yet still he captured me, killed a score of my men, and held me in his dungeons." He brandished the arm shackle again. "For that, yes, I do wish revenge—but if Elias was ruling well and fairly, I would sacrifice the revenge for the good of Osten Ard, and especially my Erkynland. As to accommodation... I do not know if that is possible. Elias has grown dangerous and difficult; some say that he crosses over into madness at times."
"Who says?" Devasalles asked. "Lords who chafe under his admittedly heavy hand? We speak of a possible war that will tear our nations like rotted cloth. It would be a shame if it started over rumors."
Josua leaned back and summoned a page, whispering a message to him. The boy virtually flew out of the hall.
A muscular, bearded man in white furs and silver chains stood. "If the baron remembers me not, I will remind him," he said, plainly uncomfortable. "Ethelferth, Lord of Tinsett am I, and I wish to say only this; if my prince says the king has lost his wits, well, that word is good enough for me." He furrowed his brow and sat.
Josua stood up, slender, gray-clad body uncoiling like a rope. "Thanks to you, Lord Ethelferth, for your good words. But, "he cast his eyes around the assembly, which quieted to watch him, "no one need take my word for anything, or the words of other of my liegemen. Instead I bring to you one whose firsthand knowledge of Elias's ways you will, I am sure, find easy to trust." He waved his left hand toward the near door of the hall, the one through which the page had disappeared. The boy had reentered; behind him in the doorway were two figures. One was the Lady Vorzheva. The other, dressed in sky blue, stepped past Vorzheva into the pool of light around the wall sconce.
"My lords," Josua said, "the Princess Miriamele—daughter of the High King."
And Simon, gaping, stared at the short, cropped strands of golden hair that showed beneath the veil and crown, shed of their dark disguise... and staring at the oh-so-familiar face, felt a great tumbling inside him. He almost stood, as the others were doing, but his knees went watery and dropped him back into his chair. How? Why? This was her secret—her rotten, treacherous secret!
"Marya," he murmured, and as she sat in the chair Gwythinn surrendered to her, acknowledging his gesture with a precise, gracious nod of her head, and as everyone else sat down again, talking aloud in their wonder, Simon finally lurched to his feet.
"You," he said to Binabik, grabbing the little man's shoulder, "did... did you know?!"
The troll seemed about to say something, then grimaced instead and shrugged. Simon looked up across the sea of heads to find Marya... Miriamele... staring at him with wide, sad eyes.
"Damn!" he hissed, then turned and hurried from the room, his eyes pooling with shameful tears.
"WELL, LAD," Towser said, pushing another flagon across the tabletop, "you couldn't be righter—trouble they are. Always will be."
Simon squinted at the old jester, who suddenly seemed the repository of all knowledge. "They write letters to a fellow," he said, and took a generous swallow, "lying letters." He set the cup back down on the wood and watched the wine wash from side to side, threatening to overtop the rim.
Towser leaned back against the wall of his boxlike room. He was in his linen undershirt, and had not shaved for a day or two. "They do write those letters, " he said, nodding his white-bristled chin gravely. "Sometimes they lie about you to the other ladies."
Simon frowned, thinking about it. She had probably done just that, telling the other highborn noble folk about the stupid scullion who had ridden with her on a boat down the Aelfwent. It was probably a merry tale all through the Naglimund.
He took another swig and felt the sour taste come back up, filling his mouth with bile. He set the cup down.
Towser was struggling to his feet. "Look, look," the old man said, going to a wooden chest and rummaging about inside. "Damnation, I know it's here somewhere."
"I should have realized!" Simon berated himself. "She wrote me a note. How could a serving girl have... have known how to spell better than me?!"
"Here's that God-be-cursed lute string!" Towser continued to rummage.
"But Towser, she wrote me a note—said God bless me! Called me 'friend.'"
"What? Well, that's fine, lad, fine. That's the kind of girl you want, not some stuck up fancy-lady who'll look down on you, like that other. Ah! Here!"
"Hah?" Simon had lost the thread. He was virtually positive he had only been talking of one girl—the arch-traitoress, the identity-shifting Marya... Miriamele... well, it didn't matter very much, did it?"
But she fell asleep on my shoulder. Fuzzily, drunkenly, he remembered warm breath on his cheek, and felt a corresponding ache of loss.
"Look at this, lad." Towser was standing over him, swaying, holding out something white. Simon stared, puzzled.
"What is it?"
"A scarf. For cold weather. Do you see these?" The old man pointed a bent forefinger at a series of characters woven onto the white in dark blue thread. The shape of the runes reminded Simon of something that touched off a throb of cold inside him even through the fog of wine.
"What are they?" he asked, his voice a little clearer than before.
"Rimmersgard runes," the old jester said, smiling absently. "They read 'Cruinh'—my true name. A girl wove those, wove the scarf. For me. When I was with my dear King John at Elvritshalla." Unexpectedly, he began to cry, feeling his way back to the table to slump down in the hard chair. Within a few moments the sobbing was over, and water stood in his red-rimmed eyes like puddles after a sunshower. Simon said nothing.
"I should have married that one," Towser said at last. "But she would not leave her land—wouldn't come back to the Hayholt. Frightened of foreign ways, she was, frightened to leave her family. She died years ago, poor girl." He sniffled loudly. "And how could I have ever left my good John?"
"What do you mean?" Simon asked. He couldn't remember where he'd seen the Rimmersgard runes lately, or at least he did not want to put out the effort to recall. Easier just to sit here in the candlelight and let the old man talk. "When were th... when were you in Rimmersgard?" he prompted.
"Oh, lad, years and years and years." Towser wiped his eyes without embarrassment and blew his nose into a capacious kerchief. "It was after the Battle of Naarved. In the year after it was over, that was when I met the girl who made this."
"What was the Battle of Naarved?" Simon reached out to pour himself more wine, then thought better of it. What, he wondered, was going on in the great hall at this moment?
"Naarved?" Towser goggled. "You don't know Naarved? Where John beat old King Jormgrun, and became High King over the north?"
"I suppose I do know some of it," Simon said uncomfortably. What a lot there was to know in the world! "It was a famous battle?"
"Of course!" Towser's eyes were bright. "John laid siege to Naarved all through the winter. Jormgrun and his men never thought that southerners, Erkynlanders, could survive the cruel Rimmeregard snows. They were sure that John would have to call off the siege and retreat south. But John did it! Not only did they break Naarved, but in the final storming John went over the wall of the inner keep himself and got the porticullis open—held off ten men until he could cut the guy rope. Then he broke Jormgrun's shield and cut him down before his own heathen altar!"
"Really? And you were there?" Simon had heard this story, more or less, but it was exciting to hear it from a firsthand witness.
"As good as. I was in John's camp; he took me everywhere with him, my good old king."
"How did Isgrimnur get to be duke?"
"Ah." Towser's hand, which had been wringing the white scarf, went in search of the wine jug and found it. "It was his father Isbeom who was the first duke, you see. He was the first of the pagan Rimmersgard nobles to become enlightened—to receive the grace of Usires Adeon. His house was made by John the first house of Rimmersgard. So Isbeom's son Isgrimnur is duke now, and a more pious Aedonite you'd have a hard time finding."
"What happened to King Jorg-whatever-was-his-name's sons? Didn't any of them want to become Aedonites?"
"Oh," Towser waved his hand dismissively, "I think they all died in the fighting."
"Hmmm." Simon sat back, pushing the confusing business of religion and paganism out of his mind to try and visualize the great battle. "Did King John have Bright-Nail then?" he asked.
"Yes... yes, he did." Towser said. "God's Tree, he was a beautiful man to watch in battle. Bright-Nail, it shone so brightly and moved so quickly—just a blur of steel it was—that sometimes John looked like he was surrounded by beautiful, holy silver light." The old jester sighed.
"So who was the girl?" Simon asked.
Towser stared. "What girl?"
"The one who made the scarf for you."
"Oh!" Towser frowned, wrinkling. "Sigmar." He thought for several long moments. "Well, you see, we did not leave for almost a year. It's hard work administering a conquered country, you know, hard work. Harder than fighting the damned war, it sometimes seemed to me. She was a girl who cleaned the hall where the king stayed—where I stayed, too. She had hair the color of gold—no, lighter, it was almost white. I lured her in to me, just like taming a wild colt: a kind word here, a bit of extra food for her family there. Ah, she was a pretty one!"
"Did you want to marry her then?"
"I think I did. It's been many a long year, boy. I wanted to take her with me, that's sure as sure. But she wouldn't go."
Neither spoke for a while. The storm winds moaned outside the thick castle walls, like hounds forgotten by their master. Candle wax dripped and sizzled.
"If you could go back," Simon said at last, '"if you could be there again..." he struggled with the difficult idea, "would you... would you let her get away a second time?"
There was no reply at first. Just when Simon was about to reach up and give a gentle shake, the old man stirred and cleared his throat.
"I don't know," Towser said slowly. "It seems as though God made happen what He meant to happen, but we must have choices, eh, boy? Without choices there's no good. I don't know—I don't think I want to unwrap the past that much. Better the way it is, choices right or wrong."
"But choices are so much easier afterward," Simon said, clambering to his feet. Towser stared fixedly into the wavering candleflame. "I mean, at the moment you have to decide on things, you never know enough. It's only later that you see everything."
He suddenly felt more tired than drunken, caught and tugged at by a wave of fatigue. He gave thanks for the wine, then said good night to the old jester and walked out into the deserted courtyard and the slanting rain.
Simon stood and knocked mud off his boots, watching Haestan stump away across the damp, wind-lashed hillside. The cookfires of the town below bled their smokes upward into the steely sky. Unwrapping the cloth padding from his sword, he watched the white blades of sunlight that thrust down through the clouds on the northwestern horizon, shafts that might signify either the presence of a brighter, better place beyond the storm, or only the impersonal play of light, caring nothing for the world or its problems. Simon stared upward, rolling the batting in his hands, but his mood remained unchanged. He felt lonely. Standing amid the swaying grasses he might as well have been a stone or the stump of a tree.
Binabik had come by that morning, the sound of his rap at the door eventually cutting through Simon's wine-weighted sleep. He had ignored the rapping and the troll's faint words until both stopped, and he could roll back over and doze a little longer. He had no wish to see the little man quite yet, and had been grateful for the impersonal door between them.
Haestan had laughed callously at the greenish tinge Simon wore to the guard barracks, and after promising to take him out sometime soon for some real drinking, proceeded to sweat the vapors out of him. Although at first Simon was convinced that his life was being drained from him at the same time, after an hour or so he thought he could feel his blood once more begin to flow through his veins. Haestan worked him even harder than the day before, with cloth-shrouded sword and padded buckler, but Simon was grateful for the distraction: it was a luxury to submerge himself in the relentless, pounding rhythm of sword on shield, of swipe and dodge and counter-swipe.
Now, with the wind knifing though his sweat-sodden shirt, he picked up his gear and started back up the slope to the main gate.
Trudging across the rain-puddled inner courtyard, dodging the squad of guards in thick wool cloaks on their way out to relieve the sentries, it seemed to him that all the color had been bled out of Naglimund. The unhealthy trees, the gray capes of Josua's guardsmen, the priests' somber vestments, every object in his view could have been hewn from stone; even the hurrying pages were only statues that had been given some sort of transitory life, but would eventually grind down into immobility again.
As Simon toyed with, even enjoyed, these gloomy sentiments, his attention was attracted by a gleam of color that suddenly appeared across a long open courtyard, colors whose brightness leaped out like a trumpet call on a quiet evening.
The extravagant silks belonged to three young women who had swung out from an archway to skitter headlong, laughing, across the open court. One wore red and gold, another a yellow like a field of mown hay; the third had a long, shiny dress of dove-gray and blue. It took him only a fraction of an instant to recognize the last as Miriamele.
He was already walking toward the retreating threesome before he knew what he was up to; a moment later he began to trot as they disappeared under the long, columned walkway, the sound of their talk floating back to him like a provocative scent to a chained mastiff. Within thirty long paces he had caught up.
"Miriamele!" he said, and it came out of his mouth very loudly, making him stop short in surprise and embarrassment. "Princess?" he lamely tacked on as she turned. Recognition was pushed off her face by another emotion that followed quickly behind, one that looked to him terrifyingly like pity.
"Simon?" she questioned, but there was no corresponding doubt in her eyes. They stood, three or four ells between them, facing each other as though across a canyon. For a moment they only stared, each waiting for the other's voice to cross the distance with the proper reply. At last Miriamele said something short and quiet to her two companions, whose faces Simon took no notice of, except to register what he was sure was disapproval in their expressions; the pair backed away, then turned and walked a short distance ahead.
"I... I feel strange not calling you Marya... Princess." Simon looked down at the mud splattered on his boottops, his grass-stained pants, and instead of the shame he would have expected felt a kind of strange, fierce pride. Perhaps he was a bumpkin; at least he was an honest bumpkin.
The princess looked him over quickly, saving his face for last. "I'm sorry, Simon. I didn't lie to you because I wanted to, but because I had to." She unknotted her fingers to make a brief gesture of helplessness. "I'm sorry."
"No... no need to be sorry. It just... just..." he searched for words, keeping his own hands resolutely clamped around his scabbard, "it just makes things strange, I suppose."
Now he was looking her over. He decided that the beautiful dress—which, he noticed, was striped in green, perhaps in stubborn loyalty to her father—both added to the Marya he remembered, and took something away as well. She looked good, he had to admit: her fine, sharp features were now set, like a valuable stone, in a substance that showed them off properly. At the same time there was something missing, something funny and earthy and careless in the Marya who had shared his river journey and the terrifying night on the Stile. There was not much to remind him of it in her subdued face, but a hint still lurked in the close-shorn strands of hair that showed at the neck of her cowl.